Using Contextual Analysis to evaluate texts

A contextual analysis is simply an analysis of a text (in whatever medium, including multi-media) that helps us to assess that text within the context of its historical and cultural setting, but also in terms of its textuality – or the qualities that characterize the text as a text. A contextual analysis combines features of formal analysis with features of “cultural archeology, ” or the systematic study of social, political, economic, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic conditions that were (or can be assumed to have been) in place at the time and place when the text was created. While this may sound complicated, it is in reality deceptively simple: it means “situating” the text within the milieu of its times and assessing the roles of author, readers (intended and actual), and “commentators” (critics, both professional and otherwise) in the reception of the text.

A contextual analysis can proceed along many lines, depending upon how complex one wishes to make the analysis. But it generally includes several key questions:

1. What does the text reveal about itself as a text?

– Describe (or characterize) the language ( the words, or vocabulary) and the rhetoric (how the words are arranged in order to achieve some purpose). These are the primary components of style.

2. What does the text tell us about its apparent intended audience(s)?

– What sort of reader does the author seem to have envisioned, as demonstrated by the text’s language and rhetoric?
– What sort of qualifications does the text appear to require of its intended reader(s)? How can we tell?
– What sort of readers appear to be excluded from the text’s intended audiences? How can we tell?
– Is there, perhaps, more than one intended audience?

3. What seems to have been the author’s intention? Why did the author write this text? And why did the author write this text in this particular way, as opposed to other ways in which the text might have been written?

– Remember that any text is the result of deliberate decisions by the author. The author has chosen to write (or paint, or whatever) with these particular words and has therefore chosen not to use other words that she or he might have used. So we need to consider:
   – what the author said (the words that have been selected);
   – what the author did not say (the words that were not selected); and
   – how the author said it (as opposed to other ways it might or could have been said).

4. What is the occasion for this text? That is, is it written in response to:

– some particular, specific contemporary incident or event?
– some more “general” observation by the author about human affairs and/or experiences?
– some definable set of cultural circumstances?

5. Is the text intended as some sort of call to – or for – action?

– If so, by whom? And why?
– And also if so, what action(s) does the author want the reader(s) to take?

6. Is the text intended rather as some sort of call to – or for – reflection or consideration rather than direct action?

– If so, what does the author seem to wish the reader to think about and to conclude or decide?
– Why does the author wish the readers to do this? What is to be gained, and by whom?

7. Can we identify any non-textual circumstances that affected the creation and reception of the text?

– Such circumstances include historical or political events, economic factors, cultural practices, and intellectual or aesthtic issues, as well as the particular circumstances of the author's own life.


Stephen C. Behrendt – Spring 2008